Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Carrol Vertrees, My Inspiration

Originally Written 06/16/2014

Elnora recently lost a great son with the death of former resident, Carrol Vertrees.  His writings were loved by many, and he served as the inspiration for my futile attempts at trying to emulate his success and style.

I learned of his passing a few days ago as I was getting my daily “Facebook fix” on-line.  I scrolled down the page and read the shocking headline: “Post-Tribune columnist Carrol Vertrees dead at 92.”  His lengthy obituary spoke of his career as a journalist for newspapers in northern Indiana as well as the Odon Journal.  He remained active to the end, having a new column published in the Journal just two days after he died.  My initial reaction was one of shock, but when I started thinking about the overall tone of the last several of his “Vertrees Comments,” I feel that he may have had a premonition he would soon be moving from his earthly home to his celestial one.

In 1976, author Alex Haley published Roots: The Saga of an American Family, a novel based on his family’s history.  It became a best seller and one of the most watched TV miniseries of all time.  I speculate that Carrol Vertrees (CV, as he signed his e-mails to me) began sculpting stories of his Elnora roots long before Haley’s book.

Carrol Vertrees was 23 years my senior, but we had at least two things in common; we both loved our little home town, and we both moved away at an early age.  History has shown that as many Elnora residents reach young adult status, they scatter hither and yon like brown, brittle leaves on a windy autumn day.  CV and I were alike in that regard.

In fact, I should mention that although he knew of me as a small child, I never met Carrol Vertrees face-to-face during my adult life.  I became familiar with him through his newspaper columns and later through the magic of e-mail and Facebook.  He knew my family and has shared memories of my father, Emerson, and my mother, Elizabeth (he called her “Libby”), and remembered that the Johnson clan attended Mud Pike Church along with the Vertrees family all those years ago.  He also extolled the culinary virtues of the food at my parents’ restaurant and raved about my mom’s excellent chili.  He mentioned her recently in a Facebook entry after I had posted some pictures of her for Mothers’ Day.

When the now-defunct Elnora Post began its operation in 2008, I decided to try my hand at submitting some of my own Elnora memories and hoped I could become half the writer CV was.  I have had fun trying, but I truly think what I consider my best work can’t hold the proverbial candle to anything I ever read of his.  Most of my stories recount specific vignettes of my life growing up in our little hometown.  CV could write about anything, but before you knew it, he’d sneak in that little Elnora reference.  He was a master at that.

I have saved all of my stories that have been printed in the Post and now in the Journal. I’ve also kept several of CV’s.  One of my favorites was his recollection of how Elnora celebrated Christmas during his younger days.  It was a true masterpiece.  One year ago this week in the June 19, 2013 edition of the Odon Journal, he wrote a letter to the “From Our Mailbag” column titled “Remembering Elnora.”  In it, he compared our memories of that little piece of Daviess County Heaven that we call home.  He explained that we come from different generations and that our memories are linked to three different towns, his Elnora, my Elnora, and the modern Elnora, a shell of its former self, but still a treasure of memories.

I’d like to quote a portion of that letter: “I salute folks like Jim Johnson who knew painful adversity from an early age and felt the love of people who cared.  Like me, he feels that memories, even painful ones, help us understand who we are and where we have been.  Little towns like Elnora that are only shells of their former vibrant lives still seem real -- a permanent part of us.  Jim Johnson has reminded us of that important truth.”

On the contrary, I feel Carrol Vertrees reminded us of that better than I ever could have.  One of those painful memories is now knowing that his wit, insight, and eloquence have been silenced forever.  CV, I salute you and hope that one day we can sit down on the “other side” and swap a few stories.  Till then, I will miss you.

That Day in Dallas

Originally Written 11/23/2013

I tried to pen these thoughts a week ago, but the words just wouldn’t come.

It’s often been said that “bad things come in threes.”  The year, 1963, may not have proven that theory, but for me it came awfully close.  On February 13, 1963, one day before the celebration of St. Valentine, my father died from a long bout with lung cancer.  Three months later, death claimed my faithful dog, Willie.

During that summer, I worked at the Crane Naval Ammunition Depot as it was known in those days.  Many weeks I’d put in sixty hours or more so that I would have enough money to return to Purdue in the fall and help ease the financial burden on my widowed mother.  I had a scholarship that paid for my tuition and books, but we still had to pony up for room, board, and “spending money.”  So, with a heavy heart I returned to Boilermaker country in September, leaving Mother home with her new dachshund, Greta.

Friday, November 22, 1963, dawned pretty much like any other day.  I worked part-time in the dorm cafeteria.  That morning I was in the serving line dipping up the scrambled eggs, bacon, and other breakfast foods before heading to campus.  Unlike most colleges, Purdue started classes on the “half-hour” rather than at the top of the hour.  And, in 1963, Purdue was on Central Standard Time, the same as Dallas, Texas.

I had a 1:30 economics class at Stanley Coulter Hall and always drove to class early to seek one of the elusive open parking spaces.  That afternoon I got lucky and found one right away.  I was listening to music in my old ‘56 Dodge when a DJ interrupted, saying that President Kennedy had been shot and we should stay tuned for further details.  Not realizing how serious this truly was, I turned off the radio and entered the building.  After ascending the monstrous Stanley Coulter main staircase, I saw a note on the classroom door stating that all Friday and Saturday classes at Purdue had been cancelled.  Only then did I know the worst, bad things do come in threes.

The next day, Saturday, was sunny, warm, and beautiful.  The annual Purdue/IU Old Oaken Bucket football game was scheduled in Bloomington, but like nearly every game throughout the land, it was postponed a week until the Saturday after Thanksgiving.  I had planned to drive to Elnora, pick up my mom, and take her to her first college football game, but we would now have to wait a week for a cold, snowy day to see Purdue recapture the Bucket.

But, on the “Kennedy” weekend, I worked in the cafeteria, did my own “gig” as a DJ on the Purdue Residence Network, studied very little, and watched the constant news evolving on TV.   On Sunday, 15-20 of us sat in the basement TV room and lost even more innocence as we witnessed the assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby live in black and white.

I was just 19 years old and had already learned the life lessons of impermanence.  By then I had been afflicted by polio, had lost my grandparents, my father, my dog, and now the nation had lost its President.  Healing takes time and comes in different forms for different people.  The recent TV specials about “that day in Dallas” brought back so many memories, and I realize I’m still grieved by those events of over fifty years ago.